I usually write about matters of Jewish thought but, given my background in linguistics, my pedantic personality and my tendency to use words like “pedantic,” I occasionally write about things like grammar, spelling and punctuation. I must not be alone in such interests because my column on the Oxford comma was surprisingly popular. When I write about such things, however, I still try to have a point. (Well, two points. The first point is “The way I do things is right and if you do them differently then you’re necessarily wrong.” But I like to have a moral or lesson aside from that.) Which brings us to the way we pronounce (or mispronounce) the word “GIF.”
“GIF” is an acronym. It stands for “Graphics Interchange Format” and it is a popular bitmap image format. But there has been some heated debate as to its proper pronunciation: “jif” with a soft G (like giant, giraffe and Ginger Rogers) or “giff” with a hard G (like gryphon, gargoyle and Cary Grant). I am unabashedly in the “jif” camp for two reasons: logic and authority.
Those who say “giff” think they have logic on their side but they really don’t. “It’s a hard G because it stands for Graphic,” they insist. “It’s not Jraphics Interchange Format!”
That may be so but the argument is irrelevant. The whole point of an acronym is to create a pronounceable word; the pronunciation of the letters in their original contexts is irrelevant. Consider the acronym “scuba,” which stands for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” You’ll notice that, even though “underwater” is pronounced with a short U (“uh”), “scuba” is pronounced with a long U (“oo,” i.e., “skooba”). To my knowledge, nobody goes around saying it should be pronounced “skubba.” The same is true with “laser.” It’s short for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” “Amplification” has a short A (as in cat) but we say “leizer” with a long A and not “lasser.”
It’s not only the case with vowels. Consider the American Society of Photographers (ASP). The P stands for “Photographers” but it’s not pronounced “Asf.” And what about Content Integrated Research in Creative-User Systems (CIRCUS)? The first C stands for “Content” but the acronym is pronounced “circus,” not “kirkus.”
Now, as far as I’m concerned, this demolishes the “it’s spelled with a hard G” position but I’m open to the possibility of counter examples. Seriously, if you know of any examples in which we pronounce an acronym counterintuitively because of its base words, I would love to hear them!
My second basis for favoring “jif” is based on a concept called “Word of God.” Despite the name, this is not a religious thing. In this context, “Word of God” refers to information that comes straight from the ultimate authority. For example, when J. K. Rowling reveals information about the Harry Potter franchise on her Pottermore website, that’s “Word of God,” i.e., it’s considered canonical even though it doesn’t appear in any of the books.
You know J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man? Wikipedia says that his first name is John but in 2010, Stan Lee tweeted, “I herewith proclaim, for the world to see, that J. Jonah Jameson’s first name is — Jeremiah!” Lee created both Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson, so he should know.
Similarly, the mysterious woman in the Doctor Who episode “The End of Time” is never identified on screen but she is canonically the Doctor’s mother because showrunner Russell T. Davies says she is.
So what does this have do with the pronunciation of the word “GIF?” Well, GIFs were developed by a team at CompuServe led by a computer scientist named Steve Wilhite and they say it’s pronounced “jif!” According to Wilhite, they intentionally chose to pronounce GIF as a homophone for the peanut butter brand Jif, saying “Choosy developers choose GIF,” a play on Jif’s television commercials about what choosy moms choose. (In the interest of full disclosure, Jif peanut butter is OU-certified kosher. Neither Jif nor OU Kosher had any input into this article.)
So, (1) logically, acronyms follow the pronunciation of the words they spell rather than the words they come from, and (2) authoritatively, the guy who invented the thing tells us how it’s pronounced. So what basis is there to say that it’s “giff?” (I acknowledge that dictionaries are split on this matter but that just reflects the existing debate.)
Okay, so let’s look for a moral here. The mishna in Avos (5:7) tells us:
A boorish person possesses seven character traits and a wise person possesses seven character traits. A wise person doesn’t speak before one who is even wiser, he doesn’t interrupt, he isn’t hasty in his response, he asks relevant questions and answers in accordance with the law, he addresses first things first and last things last, he acknowledges when he hasn’t learned something and he admits the truth. A boorish person behaves in the opposite fashion.
The phrase I’d like to focus on here is that a wise person admits the truth, while a boorish person does the opposite. The Bartinuro illustrates this principle through the incident outlined in Leviticus chapter 10 and expanded upon in tractate Zevachim (101a). Moshe criticized a bereaved Aharon for burning his sin offering rather than eating it, as a kohein normally would. As the Talmud elaborates, Aharon said to Moshe, “If you have learned this law in the case of occasional sacrifices, that doesn’t mean that it also applies in the case of generational sacrifices.” As the Torah tells us, “When Moshe heard this, he approved” (v. 20).
This is not to say that Moshe was “defeated” or that he couldn’t have argued his position. Rather, as the Bartinuro on our mishna defines things, a wise person concedes to the truth when he hears it even though he possesses the ability to keep the debate going.
Similar to this mishna, as part of our daily morning service, we recite:
A person should always have fear of Heaven – both in private and in public – he should admit the truth and speak the truth in his heart…
“Admit to the truth” – unlike Korach, who led the rebellion against Moshe. As the Midrash explains (in both Tanchuma and Bemidbar Rabbah), Korach prepared particular questions of Jewish law to ask Moshe so that whatever Moshe answered, Korach would be able to argue the opposite position. He had no interest in the truth, just in defeating Moshe.
“Speak the truth in his heart” – like Rav Safra. The Talmud in Makkos (24a) describes how Rav Safra was offered a certain amount of money for some merchandise and he intended to accept the offer. Before he was able to answer, however, the prospective buyer upped the offer. Nevertheless, Rav Safra sold the merchandise for the lower price. Even though the buyer had no way of knowing that Rav Safra had mentally agreed to his initial offer, Rav Safra knew the truth and acted accordingly.
If when it comes to something silly, like how to pronounce the name of a file format, we dig in our heels and refuse to budge, how do we react on the really big issues? I’m not telling anyone how to think about climate change, gun control or the Middle East – or on matters of halacha for that matter – but whatever our opinions, do we believe them because it’s what our analysis of all the facts tells us is true? Or have we already chosen a side and we only accept whatever sources support our preconceived decision? (See: every conversation on Facebook.)
My earlier faux seriousness aside, I really couldn’t care that much how people pronounce “GIF.” But if we insist on doing something, we should ask ourselves why we do it. If we determine that our choices are not supported by the truth, we should not be afraid to concede. This would be a good trait to cultivate because there are areas where it matters far more than in how we “choose GIF.”
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.